The Bulletproof Lifestyle

A stroll along Sao Paulo's Avenida Europa is a passage through upmarket heaven. Storefronts tempt passersby with gleaming Porsches, smart clothes and overpriced cappuccino. But lately the talk at the cigar bars and in the beauty boutiques is not just about mergers, beach homes or liposculpture. Listen a little more closely, and you'll learn all about bulletproof Isoclima windshields and Kevlar car armor, or maybe the latest tips from Mossad instructors on what to do when you find yourself at the wrong end of a .44 magnum.

The business of fortifying the fortunate--long a healthy one in Latin America--is better than ever. Especially in Brazil, where the distance between rich and poor is a canyon, and a changing economic landscape has simultaneously produced more wealthy people and unrelentingly high levels of violent crime. Greater Sao Paulo, for example, reported 9,027 murders last year, compared with 667 in New York City. The government's about to unveil a major anti-crime initiative--but meanwhile, Brazilians are spending between $3 billion and $5 billion a year on private-security goods and services. The products range from computerized surveillance gear to Rottweilers. But the hottest new item in the fear trade is armored passenger cars.

Avenida Europa is now Sao Paulo's bulletproof alley--the place to shop for a car with enough steel, fiber, plastic and Superglass to withstand a round from a 9mm assault rifle or even a burst from an Uzi. Early last year there was a single armoring showroom on this broad boulevard in the tony Jardim Europa district. Now there are seven, each one bigger and brighter than the next, all staffed by sales teams in monogrammed shirts. On the outskirts of town some 25 factories turn out more than 1,000 armored cars a year, adding to the 10,000-strong armored fleet already on Brazilian roads. Armored cars are so popular they have even become a status symbol in So Paulo. "In some circles you're a nobody if you don't own a rare dog and an armored car," jokes Patrick McDonnell of Kroll Associates, a U.S.-based security company.

But this is more than a fashion trend. Last year Brazil registered 35,000 murders and 380,000 stolen cars. In Sao Paulo, the homicide rate jumped from about 44 per 100,000 in the early '90s to 54 per 100,000 today. "This is undeclared civil war," says Ib Texeira, a security expert at Getulio Vargas Foundation, a business school. That's old news on Avenida Europa. "Our customers aren't worried about bombs or terrorists," says Marcus Kwasniewski, a salesman at G5, a $13 million-a-year armor company. "Just holdups, drug addicts, carjackers--you know, our Little Kosovo."

The development that crystallized everyone's fears--and kicked off the current boom--came in May 1999. That was when a heavily armed band tried to kidnap the children of Jorge Paulo Lemann, a wealthy So Paulo investment banker, as the kids were being chauffeured to school. The bandits opened fire, turning Lemann's VW Passat sedan into "Swiss cheese," says one armor tradesman. Fortunately, the car was armored; the driver was injured but managed to speed away to safety. Lemann won't talk about the incident, but everyone else does. "The next day phones were ringing off the hooks," recalls Hilton Pezzoni of Wendler, a German armor company, which set up shop in Brazil last year.

About half the customers at the armor factories go for midprice Volkswagens, Citroens and Renaults. In armoring argot this is called "low profiling." Why remind the robbers you're rich by driving an expensive-looking car? But that doesn't mean the customized vehicles are cheap. When the car rolls out of the shop, it will be 150 kilos or so heavier and the owner's wallet $20,000 to $40,000 lighter. Partial armoring is less expensive--but not recommended. "Would you agree to having safe sex every other week?" says Pezzoni. For now, customers seem more than willing to pay top dollar. "This was the best personal investment I've made in years," says one Sao Paulo auto-parts manufacturer who decided to fortify his three cars after being robbed at a traffic light for the fifth time. It cost him about $80,000 to do the family fleet. Hardly a bargain price, but certainly a better deal than emptying your pockets at gunpoint.